On the Road – Six Flags America

My company, or at least my local division of it, has a couple of major recreational activities each year.  We have a Halloween party to end all, where the kids are invited to come trick-or-treat around our office, and the employees have a major decorating contest with massive prizes.  We have a formal holiday party that’s just to die for, and gets better every year.  And we have the company summer picnic.

For the last several years, the picnic’s been at a local club where we could have a cookout, eat hard-shell crabs and go swimming.  This year, as a change, the company picnic was at Six Flags America, down by Washington, DC.

Some background – the wife and I used to have season passes for several years to Six Flags, and Six Flags America (SFA) is the closest park to our house, being only about an hour away.  (The primary reason we’d been interested in the passes is that a Six Flags pass is good at any Six Flags park – not the separate waterparks, but at least the amusement parks.  Six Flags Great Adventure (SFGA) is en route to my parents’ houses, so we often would stop there coming or going from a visit, and the season pass at SFA is cheaper than a one-day admission to SFGA.)  We made the decision two seasons ago not to renew our passes as it became increasingly difficult to go, partially due to the Monster’s Autism and partially just from trying to juggle kids and roller coasters, moreso when R came along.

And, for parents reading this review – the Monster is five years old, while R is just shy of 17 months.

(Because I just want to be fully clear – my company provided our passes today.  While I did not pay for them, neither did the park provide me with them.)

We did our research before going down to SFA, and realized that there doesn’t seem to be a very coherent policy for handling children with Autism who arrive at a Six Flags park.  When we went to Sesame Place, we went to guest services and received a print-out from them with a list of rides that could require accommodation along with a wristband so that he didn’t have to wait in line. We know, from reading other blogs, that Disney is accommodating as well, provided that you have a doctor’s letter.

SFA - Accessibility Boarding Card 2013The folks at SFA didn’t ask to see our letter from the doctor… but the woman that the wife first approached at Guest Services had no idea what she was talking about when she requested accommodation.  It took a manager to realize that the wife was asking for assistance due to having someone with a disability in the group… and provided her with a folded piece of paper that entitled us to get reservation times for rides… and that was it.  You really are on your own with doing research on the rides to know what your child can and can’t ride before you get to the park.  I would have liked something like Sesame Place’s printed list from them.

Further.. well, let me be blunt.  I don’t have an issue with a reservation system – I agree that the Monster’s disability is not carte blanche to cut the line and race to the front of the queue on as many rides as we can manage.  However, this system has major failings with it:SFA - Accessibility Boarding Card 2013

  1. You can only reserve a single ride at any one time.  You can’t go reserve times at a number of rides – you have to go take that first reserved ride before you can make a second reservation anywhere.
  2. If you’re in a group of 3 or more (as we usually are) – the rules are written clearly that you cannot use the reservation card.  Instead, the person with the disability and a companion are to wait at the accessible entrance, and the rest of the party is supposed to go wait in line, and then they’ll be reunited when the rest of the group gets to the ride.
  3. None of the water rides are included.  This pass is only good for the land side.  (Granted, most of the water rides also include having to scale a structure to the top of the slide – they’re not ADA compliant – but there’s a principle here.)
  4. It doesn’t include any of the rides in either of the children’s areas (Whistlestop Park and Looney Tunes Movie Town).

Clearly, the reservation card is really meant more for adults with a physical disability than children with a developmental disability.  For instance, it doesn’t address something clearly in the Monster’s doctor’s letter – that he has difficulty waiting in lines – nor does it deal with rides appropriate to him.  Further, I still don’t see the harm in letting someone on a disability card get multiple reservations, if they are, indeed, still in theory “waiting” for a spot and are required to be riding – they can’t just be saving the spot for the rest of their party.  So for a child visiting SFA, this pass is useless.

SFA - AcceI can’t really speak to how the reservation card works in practice, though.  The Monster is too small to ride most of the roller coasters, at forty-three inches, and the land-side of the park was very empty due to the heat – most folks were down at the water park keeping cool.  The rides that he can ride – the children’s areas (of which there are two) – had either no lines or minimal ones, so he was immediately seated on them when he wanted to go.  The card also doesn’t cover everything in the park, so be forewarned.

A few of the rides – like both trains in the Whistlestop Park area – had music or sounds that were very loud for him, and he covered his ears quite a bit, though your mileage will clearly vary based on your child’s sensitivity.  In other parts of the park, we had similar problems, but he did weather the carousel without too many difficulties.  We didn’t make it over to the waterpark which was packed due to the weather, but rather headed home after a few more fails at getting the Monster interested in further rides.

The major reason for our visit was to attend the company picnic, which was a two hour buffet in the picnic areas behind the Gotham Park portion of the amusement park.  There is a train to get back there – we probably would have taken it if we’d thought about it, since we knew about it – but we underestimated how far the walk was and chose instead to hike it.  If you are going there for a gathering and are going to the picnic area, and you have a child with mobility issues or who just gets wound up on a long walk on a hot day, you might avail yourself of the train.  The Monster wasn’t adverse to walking today, so it was no big deal, though it was hot and sticky out.

I’ll be upfront that part of my feeling about this might just be me still feeling somewhat jaded about SFA – it’s never been a glitzy park like SFGA or their other larger parks, but seems to be somewhat overlooked by the chain since it is the only amusement park local to DC and has no competition.  I think, though, with Sesame Place an hour and a half up the road in Philly, and other parks within a two to three hour drive that have shown that they handle kids with Autism well… that we’ll continue to spend our money elsewhere when the Monster has a want for an amusement park and avoid SFA.

I would advise you to do the same.  I cannot recommend Six Flags America as a destination for parents who have children with Autism.

Now, that said… I’m rarely one who is going to give negative criticism without trying to give something constructive as well.  I’ll be – later this week – sending a letter to Six Flags looking for a better solution at their park so I can (hopefully) someday recommend their park to other parents who have children with Autism.  I’ll let you know.

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